Immortality found in cyberspace

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The internet is truly redefining the grief process. Our profiles might not have the same crumbling grandeur of Dunedin’s Southern Cemetery, but our old statuses and selfies will preserve us indefinitely. Photo: File

I first realised my brother was missing when I logged into Facebook one evening to see his bashful face grinning at me from a ‘‘MISSING’’ notice. Rather absurdly, I wondered why they hadn’t picked a better photo of John instead of this blurry, orange-toned selfie. I continued scrolling through Facebook while frantically calling my family. Funny, innocuous videos of cats being alarmed by cucumbers were interspersed with worried messages from friends. Then came the awful, awful Skype call from my parents, when I realised that my brother’s digital life was really the only thing I had left of him. His body had been found.

Not much thought is given to one’s online legacy after death. Yet according to statistician Hachem Sadikki, by the year 2098, the number of dead people on Facebook will outnumber living members. Our profiles might not have the same crumbling grandeur of Dunedin’s Southern Cemetery, but our old statuses and selfies will preserve us indefinitely. Sometimes, I imagine my brother floating through cyberspace like an unmoored astronaut.

With 1.86 billion users worldwide, Facebook is an integral part of our lives — and our deaths too. While it was not the first social media platform to establish a policy for deceased users, it certainly addressed the issue in a unique way. In the early days of our favourite electronic bulletin board, family members took control of a deceased user’s account, often posting eerie messages from beyond the grave. There is nothing more surreal than seeing that little green ‘‘active’’ dot hovering beside a dead friend’s name in a chat log.

Now however, Facebook ensures one’s digital legacy can live on in the form of a memorialised timeline where friends can visit the page, view prior status updates or photographs and leave posts of remembrance. I often find myself scrolling through my brother’s Facebook page, digging up silly photos of him pulling faces at the camera, or laughing at his old statuses. It’s the other posts though — the ones full of sadness and love from his grieving friends — that really get to me.

Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram have similar policies, but with other social media platforms, the deceased accounts remain dormant until they are deleted due to inactivity. I think there’s a certain sadness to this quiet erasure of one’s digital footprint. Some alternatives, however, are far stranger. Take for instance the online service ‘‘Dead Social’’. Founded by James Norris after he watched a video of comedian Bob Monkhouse posthumously starring in an advert for prostate cancer, Dead Social allows people to schedule posts after they have died. I have to admit, if I am ever diagnosed with terminal cancer, I’ll probably use this service to plague my friends and loved ones with awful jokes and puns long after I’ve shuffled off this mortal coil.

It gets weirder though. In my favourite episode of the British science fiction anthology series Black Mirror, a young woman’s boyfriend is tragically killed in a car accident. As she grieves, the woman discovers a technology that allows her to communicate with an artificial intelligence imitating her deceased lover. In this case, truth certainly lives up to fiction. ‘‘Eternime’’ is an online service that uses artificial intelligence to collect your thoughts, stories and memories to create an avatar that mimics your looks and manner of conversation. As you chat with the avatar for the remainder of your life, they’re able to learn more about you and your personality. Naturally with more information, the avatar becomes more adept at mimicking you, eventually becoming your digital alter ego after death.

The internet is truly redefining the grief process. Online memorial sites provide a much more interactive experience than viewing a concrete headstone in a cemetery. Moreover, they can be accessed from anywhere in the world, connecting loved ones with the click of a mouse. And in missing people cases, memorialised social media accounts offer the bereaved an opportunity to ‘‘visit’’ a memorial.

I often find myself obsessively trawling the internet, trying to piece together every fragment of John’s online life. Finding his YouTube channel was a bittersweet moment. I never knew he could play the guitar so beautifully, though his singing left a lot to be desired. And as for his Instagram account? Who knew a simple photo of muddy feet could affect me so much? The photographs, jerky videos, Facebook messages, ‘‘likes’’ and ‘‘dislikes’’ all amounted to a precious scrapbook of memories. I can’t visit John’s grave every day, but I can fondly remember him through the pixels on my computer screen.

Let’s face it — death is inevitable. But in cyberspace, you may live forever.

Jean Balchin is an English student at the University of Otago.

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